Thoughts and asides of NaNoWriMo

November has come and gone, and unlike the first 23 times it has happened, and the approximately 18 times I was aware what ‘November’ is, the month has not been marked simply by Thanksgiving and the slow arrival of the Christmas season. This month, those 30 days passed and sitting before me is the rough draft of my first novel. In November 2010, I have participated in my first NaNoWriMo.

Working on NaNoWriMo was quite an experience for me as a writer. A whole book is a new and different creature than what I knew before. As I inched and strode and drug myself along through this month, I learned a great many things about writing. What I learned the most of though, is simply how terrible I am at it.

Through the month I learned a quite worrying amount of things. From stilted dialogue and boring word choices to gargantuan plot holes and meandering scenes with no value. I learned there are only so many ways to say someone started a car, or opened a door. I learned I want to use the word “suddenly” with an almost religious fervor. I would go jamming that word into every action scene like it was the life of the party.

“Suddenly this happened, then that guy reacted suddenly to that sudden movement.”

Then, beyond all that, there was the names. Why do I have such an inability to name things? From puppies to people to book titles, I can’t name anything that sounds natural and descriptive. They just end up with plain nobody names like Mrs. Andrews and Mr. Davis. What a crock. I can’t wait to rename these characters. To go through spell check and replace every “Mrs. Slauson” with a “Mrs Winterdom, debonair mad scientist with a grudge against the world that created her.”

You might say, “Anthony, why didn’t you just put that in there then?” Why because I had none of the incredible hindsight I have now. An endless array of hindsight in fact. With these two eyes I can see all the hideous deserts and jagged mountains that dot the landscape that is this story.

It could have been grittier, it could have been more irreverent, or more chiding and mocking. It could have been a dirty grimy cesspool of wretchedness. Of fist fights and back alley drug deals. Why didn’t I go that direction? Or it could have been more zombie-like. I could have SAID zombie in it at least once. Or mutants. I need to find a place to call them mutants, and then I can refer to them as such throughout the story. When zombies attack you every other chapter after the first act, then it’s hard to think of new ways to make the characters scared, the situation new, and the words fresh. The list of errors and regrets could fill quite a book in itself.

That brings me back to the main point of having no clue what I am doing. There were parts that I wrote that were poor. There were parts that I wrote that were wrong. Then there was the overwhelming parts in which I had no idea what I was doing. All I could do was call upon the disjointed rumbling innards of my brain that recall the vague outlines and plots which I have absorbed from hearing/reading/watching massive amounts of pop culture.

“I should end this chapter here, and have this happen next, and shoot that guy there.”

So much of my writing was like flinging darts at a wall and hoping I landed somewhere that readers would think is at least reasonable.

Now that the novel is finished, two things seem to run through my head, neither one will be the case, so I am quite annoyed that they linger in my mind. The first idea, is that my novel is terrible. So terrible. More terrible than even I could imagine. People will become ill just by looking at the words I have haphazardly stitched together. The second idea, is that this novel is good. That maybe it is solid, and could be a book with some spit and polish. Both of these thoughts are terrible and only make me feel terrible.

One would think that the thought and excitement of believing I wrote a good book would be nice. A fun endorphin high that you feel like you have earned after so much hard work. Sitting back, cracking your fingers and basking in your own self worth. You’ve written a book, feel good about yourself. Well done.

Ha ha, oh Lord no. Not for a moment can I think I am any good at this slovenly excuse for writing. The second I believe that I am any good. The moment I believe my words have value, that is when the sword will strike. That is when I will realize how inept I really am. How wide the gap is that separates me from the men I wish to be.

Of course, the depressing view is just as depressing, but the feeling is more like a lingering cloudy sky of self doubt that hangs above everything I do. Thought that is better than the sudden shattering of my fragile ego that the idea of having written a good book feels.

Try as I might, both thoughts tend to enter my mind often.

Let’s not get sidetracked by the issues with my self esteem though. Like I suppose many things are, it is tough to understand how to write a book until you have actually written one. Even a terribly written book can teach a person quite a few things about themselves and their skill level. Getting from scene to scene. Always moving forward and trying to get to the next area/chapter/scene felt like the primary goal throughout much of the book. I had to try hard to not look back. To not think about how terrible my writing was as I continued onward.

Each chapter was like a new test. Each scene change or conversation was like becoming a writer anew. Even if I had written one good chapter, what of the next one? Maybe I introduced one character with wit and cunning, but what about the next character. Writing this book felt like a series of inquisitions as to how long and how often I could create something.

At least I had the foresight to write out a brief series of plot points for each chapter for the first half of the book. They were essentially bare bones, simply stating things like introduce a character or add a certain kind of scene, but that was enough to keep me barreling through the first week. I wrote and typed and hammered out a beginning. I worked out key points and tried my best to add depth to my characters off the bat. Luckily I also had a few days off to start the month and made excellent use of them. I surpassed 10K words after the first 3 days, and couldn’t be happier. By the beginning of week two, I was already slightly above 20K words.

I spent about a month writing five pages in a composition book every day before diving into NaNoWriMo. I think that made an almost incalculable difference in the first week. My ability to both write a ton in one sitting, but more importantly, to simply find the time in each day to write and write and write was amazing. If there was one suggestion I would have for participants in the future, it would be to start writing a lot before November rolls around. Going through your usual day and finding those moments of down time in your day, or assessing what leisure activities will simply have to go makes a remarkable difference.

The second week, much like past NaNoWriMo participants have pointed out, was by far the worst. It was a good thing I had such a large lead in from the first week or else I definitely would have faltered heavily here. This week was definitely my worst in terms of words written and marked the point where my enthusiasm was tempered by reality. A great weight fell upon me as I realized that I wasn’t sure where the story would go, nor where it would end. And all the scenes in between were nothing more than a blurry cloud in the recesses of my mind. I closed out the week with a meager 30 thousand. Only half the amount I had done in the first week.

Week three fared better. I escaped out of the debilitating clutches of the 20 thousands. After surpassing the halfway mark I was reinvigorated to keep pushing forward. I am still amazed by how much time I was able to find between sleep, and work, and feeling sorry for myself to write so many words per day. The word count slowly climbed to 40K over the third week, and amazingly it just felt very natural, as if this was something I could do each and every day as easily as sleeping and eating. I didn’t feel rushed, yet I didn’t feel lazy either. It struck just the right balance of comfort and hard work.

The fourth week was a different matter. As the date seemed to close in on me, a dozen different thoughts began to swirl in my head. On top of that, my notes for each chapter had run out. I was paddling against a terrible current and it felt like one of my oars had slipped into the water surrounding me. I had to take a night or two to simply refocus my energy and think through the key points of the final third of the book. In the end, I didn’t make great use of these new notes, but they did help me reorganize my thoughts.

The final week was dotted with a strange series of word counts. One day I didn’t write a word. Some days I did far below the minimum. By the 26th day I was at just under 48K words. The next day I quickly shoved that aside and reached 50,000 and then some on November 27th. The final days were marked with a mad rush to simply finish my book. I was very fortunate to be able to time the end of my book so closely to the end of NaNoWriMo. I finished the month with 54,335 words. I did have to take some time on December 1st to finalize the entire thing though, adding the final thousand word chapter to the book which finally called an end to this adventure.

A large part of NaNoWriMo for me was the push to actually finish a book from beginning to end. I am not getting any younger and the thought that some people have written terrible books at a far younger age than I am now was a dreadful, but necessary thought as I worked through the night after work every day of the month to have something I could feel proud of. Perhaps ‘proud’ isn’t quite the right word though.

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece. I can’t say I felt ‘proud’ of this effort. I do, to an extent, but this felt more so like a learning experience. A nagging thought in my head tells me that this is just the beginning. My career as a writer has only taken the first step. I do feel proud for taking that step, and learning a lot of new things about my capacity for hard work and some of the talents I do possess as a writer, but at the same time I look out into the distance and see the incredible length I have to toil through to become something more than this.

It is not all sorrow and storm clouds this December though. I have been invigorated with thoughts, ideas, and the will to push even harder towards my goal. I plan on entering more writing contests on deviantArt, as well as working hard on other ideas for articles and stories. In fact, already only a few days after NaNoWriMo I have written an article, and I am slowly working my way through a handful of the ideas that have been taking shape in my mind through November.

So after my first NaNoWriMo, people might wonder what my outlook is for myself and my writing. I guess, for me, what I have learned about writing is that it isn’t this noble and unreachable thing that exists only for the select few who are talented and brilliant. Writing is just the culmination of hard work, an open mind, and to just keep writing no matter what. As for myself, it feels like I have simply earned the right to call myself a writer. I look forward to November 2011, and my second NaNoWriMo, where I will be able to take the knowledge that I gained from this one, and use it to create an even more satisfying story.

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